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Washington Irving's Headless Horseman Of Sleepy Hollow Turns 200


Two hundred years ago, Washington Irving created a character who's haunted generations ever since, the Headless Horseman. We meet him in "The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow" when a gangly schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane tries to court a wealthy young woman. But on a dark autumn night, he's scared away by the Headless Horseman, who may or may not have been a rival suitor, but he wields a pumpkin as his severed head.

We're joined now from Tarrytown, N.Y., the setting of "The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow," by historian Elizabeth Bradley, who's written about this. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH BRADLEY: I'm very happy to speak with you.

SIMON: So this story is kind of the product of a previous pandemic, isn't it?

BRADLEY: It absolutely is. Irving is a born and bred New Yorker - was, I should say, a born and bred New Yorker. And he moved briefly to Tarrytown, to the Tarrytown area in 1798 during a yellow fever epidemic that gripped Manhattan. Of course, Manhattan at that time was very tiny. It only extended as far as Chambers Street. And so Greenwich Village was one of the suburbs to which people fled. But another was Tarrytown, where Irving stayed with family, friends and first heard some of the stories that would make their way into the legend.

SIMON: And one of those stories is, in fact, forgive me, a headless horseman, right?

BRADLEY: That's right. That's right. In 1776, there was Hessian trooper whose head, according to General William Heath's subsequent letter, was carried away by a cannonball, just as Irving says in his tale.

SIMON: Was the story an immediate hit, or did it take a while?

BRADLEY: You know, Irving really had a lot of very youthful success. This story was an immediate hit, as was the entire collection in which it was featured, which was called "The Sketch Book Of Geoffrey Crayon, Esquire." He was very fond of nom de plume.

SIMON: And, of course, we see the legacy of "The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow" turn up in American literature and popular entertainment to this day, don't we?

BRADLEY: It's everywhere. It's everywhere from Will Rogers, who famously had a silent film in which he starred as Ichabod Crane, if you can believe it, to "Scooby-Doo," to Tim Burton, of course, Kanye West. So it's really made the rounds.

SIMON: And why do you think? What persists? What makes it so durable?

BRADLEY: Well, I think that Headless Horseman enables us to project anything we like onto it because we don't know what the horseman looks like. We don't know that it is actually a horseman. You know, it really is a mystery figure, a kind of avenger figure that could be anything you like. And as a result, it's endlessly adaptable and accessible to people from all different cultural backgrounds.

SIMON: Nowadays, we might have a contemporary story about the mask-less horseman.

BRADLEY: (Laughter) That's a more dangerous horseman, I think.

SIMON: I've never had the pleasure of going to Tarrytown. I understand. If I did, I would be enthralled by the way the Headless Horseman image has wound itself into the whole identity of the town.

BRADLEY: The Headless Horseman is everywhere. And, in fact, in 1996, the village of North Tarrytown renamed itself Sleepy Hollow to capitalize on the enduring popularity of Irving's story. But you can find the Headless Horseman in vivid detail on the sides of sanitation vehicles and police cars and fire trucks, EMS ambulances, which is a little disconcerting, not to mention the...

SIMON: Yeah, I don't think I'd want to get into an ambulance with a headless figure on it, yeah?

BRADLEY: (Laughter) I mean, they'll - you know they'll be fast. They'll drive really quickly. But that's...

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes. OK.

BRADLEY: It's also the mascot of the high school in Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, where the Headless Horseman on horseback attends every homecoming game.

SIMON: Elizabeth Bradley's book about Washington Irving called "Knickerbocker." Thanks so much for being with us.

BRADLEY: Thank you.


GEOFF CASTELLUCCI: (Singing) The Headless Horseman needs a head. The Headless Horseman needs a head. The Headless Horseman needs a head. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.